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Nerd day at preschool: Innocent or insensitive?

My AJC co-worker Ellen Eldridge sparked an interesting discussion on Facebook yesterday on the word "nerd," which prompted me to ask her to explore the issue on the blog.

While Ellen was writing her piece, I was covering a panel Monday at Drew Charter School in east Atlanta where coincidentally a panelist mentioned the term "nerd."

Karol Mason, assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, was asked what one piece of advice she would give Drew students drawn from her own experience as a student.

Thinking back to her middle and high school career, Mason said, “It is important to like school and not be afraid to achieve. I would rather be called a nerd or a goober or whatever name you call people who are smart now and be able to have a great life. Education is the key.”

Here is Ellen's column. Enjoy and discuss.

 By Ellen Eldridge

A is for Apple. Let’s stick to the basics in preschool.

The words we use have meaning and more than anything else as a writer and a mom, I want to teach my kids to say what they mean and never use words to exclude or demean others.

We all know “C is for cookie” and that’s good enough for me, but associating a letter for each of the last 26 days of preschool created more controversy than creativity as far as I’m concerned.

I dug out our Guess Who board game for “Game Day” and went along with “Hat Day,” but shortly before heading out for “Muffins for Mom Day” this morning, I got an email reminder that tomorrow is “Nerd Day.”

“So, uh, what’s a nerd?” I asked myself before my morning coffee.

A quick Google search reminded me that, yeah, “nerd” is a pejorative term, one of the stereotyping words that brought back terrible memories of middle school, where the wrong choice of clothes or afterschool activities branded one an outsider.

I talked it over with my husband. OK, I bounced my thoughts against him as he listened. I wanted to hear how I sounded before taking up the subject at school. My Facebook friends reacted when I queried them, though.

Memes of Bill Gates went up, warning others, “Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.” A friend posted an article by Wil Wheaton, where he wrote about why being a nerd is awesome.

Fine.  Of course, I agree it’s great to be intelligent, quirky, offbeat and even weird. These are the traits I embraced in high school and used to sturdy my self-confidence. But, at its heart, the etymology of nerd is slang and in context has been used as a way to make fun of others. Not what I want to teach my young learner.

Some sources, such as the Boston Globe, say “nerd” may have first appeared in print as a creative creature in “If I Ran the Zoo,” by Dr. Seuss in 1950. Nerd is bookended by “Nerkle and Seersucker, too” in the text, which may give a bit of insight into the dress code.

When I asked the preschool director how does one dress like a nerd, she suggested glasses and a bow tie. She told me a nerd is just a bookworm.

I want better from my children’s academic leaders. I’m a word geek, a grammar girl and a wannabe nerd. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words are known to harm hearts.

One of my friends said schools shouldn’t encourage kids to laugh at other people who are awkward, dress differently, love academics, etc.  “And considering there is some overlap between ‘awkward’ and special needs in some cases, this idea is a can of worms waiting to explode,” she said. “This sort of humor is better for older teenagers and adults.”

We adults can take the power back from hurtful words, but as educators of young minds let’s be cautious with our word choices and teach them to say what they mean.

If I had the stack of cash, I’d take another friend’s advice:

“Send her to school in a T-shirt and jeans carrying a laptop and a stack of hundreds.”


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.